The Rarest Leather
©1999 by Spider Johnson back to Essays
5/8/99, 10:19 p.m., Tesoro--
A Viet Nam veteran engaged me at a party last night in a conversation, one that began with a question: "What is this?"
He reached into his shirt and pulled out a medicine bag from around his neck, saying, "This is the rarest leather in the world, and it's not from an endangered species." Two responses came to my mind, and the first is what I answered him with.
"Human," I said, and his face began to broadcast a smile.
"That's right!" he exclaimed, "you're among the only three people out of scores who've ever guessed correctly what this is made of." Thus commenced a lively conversation about this and other matters which provided the lagniappe I needed to make my long drive worthwhile; the gig I came to play was poorly attended, and was paid for only by attendance receipts.
The vet could not have known that my quick response was influenced by a revelation I had several years ago about a singular irony concerning human beings: that no matter how many diseases, catastrophes, wars, murders and accidents visited upon us, accompanied by dire warnings and measures to prevent them, humans are most assuredly NOT an endangered species. Despite how we act to the contrary, not only will we survive, we will prevail, because we are actually the foremost endangerING species.
Humans have struggled hard to make a high art form out of worrying-and all worrying boils down to this: will we survive? It's very clear that animals don't worry. They just go about their survive-long-enough-to-reproduce-business day to day until they die of old age, accident, disease or other casualty, and they don't whine to other animals, write letters exhorting legislators, entreat the gods, campaign through tv ads, or otherwise endeavor to change their circumstances because they're worried about surviving.
I know that some may say, "But animals don't have an afterlife to be concerned about. They don't have souls," even though this may come as a surprise to the animals, who certainly may know more about themselves than we know about them. Besides, having only ourselves to reference about that very topic-immortality-the animals may think us foolish to squander any part of our brief, current existence on fearful considerations of a future, uncertain one. I happen to be a human who does claim a past and future eternal existence, yet because any thoughts of its form escape my finest analysis, I quit worrying about it and have resigned myself to accepting it as an elegant mystery, like some arcane mathematical equation. That doesn't get me off the hook with the animals, I'm sure; they would rank me alongside the others, if they bothered to worry with me in the first place. We could pick up a few pointers from the animals, particularly about the complaining part. I, for one (even as a human), have noticed my increasing impatience with the constant barrage of complaints, both from the airwaves and from the real people themselves. Am I complaining about that? I don't think so; I'm merely stating that I've noticed how powerless complaining is, and how most folks don't seem to notice this.
So, the leather medicine bag. Where did he legally procure human skin? I admit, this intrigued me as well, but I didn't ask because I wasn't sure I wanted to know. However, his lady companion volunteered, "It came from a tummy-tuck I had a while back. I asked the doctors what they were going to do with that skin," she continued un-prompted, "and they said they usually just threw it away. I told 'em I wanted it. They were shocked, but I got my skin anyway. Hell, it's mine, ain't it?"
The vet then explained how he tanned the skin, then made the medicine bag, and put various sacred objects in it, like the selector switch from his M-14, a small Buddha from Cambodia, his mother's gallstone, and so on-but that's another story.